Thursday, 26 February 2015

sheep thrills

If you’re not Chinese, you may have had difficulty in deciding which animal this year is meant to represent. Is it the year of the sheep? Or is it the year of the goat? It depends who you ask, but the confusion arises because in Chinese, a goat is a shan yang, or hill sheep. However, the first character is often omitted, so they are both yang, in which case the sheep takes precedence. Note that it is definitely not the year of the ram—the sex of the animal is not relevant (cf. the year of the chicken (next year), often mistakenly referred to as the year of the rooster).

Surprisingly, there are other possibilities. In a segment about Chinese New Year during the festivities that accompany the arrival of the new year, CNN was wishing its viewers a ‘happy new year of the horned animal’. The producer of this piece clearly shows great promise as a hedge fund manager, although they will probably have overlooked the other horned animal in the Chinese zodiac, which takes over in 2021.

The other observation that I would make about this year’s festivities regards the chief executive’s new year address. CY Leung exhorted the Hong Kong populace to emulate the sheep, yet it seems inconceivable that he was not aware of the negative associations that this animal suggests to Western ears—sheep are natural conformists, and as George Orwell suggested in Animal Farm, they can be relied upon to parrot the latest political slogans.

Our own celebrations followed the usual pattern: firecrackers and a lion dance on the first day (for more on the symbolism of the lion dance, see A New Year); a trip into town on the second day to watch the fireworks over the harbour; and yet more firecrackers to accompany the blessing of the roast pigs on the third day. Here are two photos taken on the first day:

The stance adopted by the rear end of the lion in the second photo suggests to me that the dancer is inexperienced.

There have been only two occasions this century when we’ve missed the fireworks over the harbour: once in 2012, when having an ankle-to-groin plaster on my leg would have made waiting for the show to commence intolerable; and a few years earlier, when the cloud ceiling was so low that the explosion of the high shells would have been obscured. It was slightly dodgy this year, with the top of the International Finance Centre hidden by swirling mist and the summit of the Bank of China Building only just visible. This may be the reason for our being able to secure a good viewing position despite arriving late—people stayed away because of the weather.

The ceremony to bless a couple of roast pigs occurs whenever in the calendar it is convenient to hold it, and it fell on the third day this year. It may be my imagination, but the ceremony seems to be evolving into a less solemn, more casual occasion. However, the roast pork is as delicious as ever.

Much of the roast pork is eaten on the spot, and the rest is distributed to the various households in the village.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

strange behaviour

We were late arriving for the fireworks on Friday, reaching the Hung Hom rail terminus only 90 minutes before the show was due to begin, so we fully expected to have to make do with an inferior viewing position. We set off along the waterfront towards the action, intending to stop once the crowds had become too dense to allow an easy continuation. However, much to our surprise, we were able to reach the prime viewing area in front of the Intercontinental Hotel with little difficulty, even passing unchallenged through what appeared to be a police checkpoint.

The result was the best viewing position we’ve had for years, but with so much space to move around in, I couldn’t help but notice an unexpected phenomenon. I shouldn’t have been surprised though, given the nature of modern social trends. What I witnessed, out of the corner of my eye, was several people who were standing with their backs to the exploding fireworks. And what were they doing? Taking ‘selfies’, of course.

I must confess to breaking a longstanding rule myself by photographing the fireworks, but my excuse was that I was trying out a new camera—my old one is now more than ten years old and isn’t up to the job I want it to do. However, I took only half a dozen photos in the first minute of the display before putting my camera in my pocket and concentrating on watching one of the best free fireworks shows to be seen anywhere.

Effectively relegating such an incredible pyrotechnic display to background wallpaper is the clearest indicator of self-absorption I’ve ever seen. Why anyone would hang around for more than an hour of excruciating boredom waiting for the show to begin, then not watch it, is beyond my understanding. I thought that watching was why we were there in the first place.

Friday, 13 February 2015


The Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail, which passes close to our house, offers visitors a fascinating glimpse into life in the New Territories before the British arrived, although there is little to see at some of the points on the tour that are highlighted on the Leisure and Cultural Services Department website and in related publications.

In particular, the Sin Shut Study Hall is in private ownership, and I’ve never seen the interior, although the outside of the building is not well maintained. However, before I describe the observation that prompted me to write this post, some background on the use of door gods to guard important buildings will be necessary:
…the posting of [door gods] to guard against intruders is an ancient Chinese custom dating back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907). The models for these fearsome warriors were two of the first Tang emperor’s most loyal generals, Qin Shubao and Yuchi Jingde. According to the legend, the emperor was being harassed each night by an unruly ghost and was thus unable to sleep, so he asked that the pair stand guard overnight to protect him from this unwelcome visitor.
Apparently, the emperor subsequently spent a peaceful night, but, not wanting to impose further on his generals, he ordered his servants to hang giant portraits of the generals to perform the guard duties. It was a practice that caught on quickly with ordinary Chinese keen to ward off evil spirits and attract good luck.

This leads me to assume that a template exists for painting door gods on wooden doors….The template would also prescribe the weaponry carried, a Chinese halberd or ji and a broadsword by Yuchi Jingde, and a pole sword and a longsword by Qin Shubao. …Qin Shubao was obviously Han Chinese, while Yuchi Jingde appears to have been of Turkic origin—and the name isn’t Chinese.
The other important point to note is that both warriors face slightly to one side—Yuchi Jingde to the right and Qin Shubao to the left—which means that when the double doors are closed and Yuchi Jingde is not on the left, the two are looking slightly away from each other. This is a serious error, because evil spirits can then slip between them unnoticed, while good luck dribbles away unchecked.

The most important buildings on the trail—the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall and the local Tin Hau temple—have elaborately painted renditions of the two warriors, but the portico of the Sin Shut Study Hall merely has two cheaply printed posters. And here’s the rub: the two are the wrong way round!

The error is repeated on a small side door:


Wednesday, 11 February 2015

riding the ’hood

When we moved to our present house on the outskirts of Fanling in 2008, the prospects for cycling in the immediate neighbourhood appeared to be extremely limited, and since our main cycling activity had previously been on the extensive cycle track network that links the towns of Taipo, Shatin and Ma On Shan (see Saturday Morning Adventure), we decided to stick with what we already knew.

However, after a serious accident at the end of 2011, and fuelled by a dislike of cycling on dedicated cycle tracks, I thought that I should see what other options were available locally. Not much apparently. If I had only an hour or so to spare, there appeared to be no choice but to ride up and down the Drainage Services Department (DSD) access road that runs alongside our local river, which, as you can imagine, is flat and singularly boring. It was only when I found a way to cross the main railway line into China (The Hill), about 3km west of our house, in 2012 that things began to look up, although at first all I could find was more DSD access roads (Across the Tracks).

Then, in 2013, I started exploring even further west, which resulted in three new rides (Journey to the West; The Long and Winding Road; The Final Frontier). Nevertheless, I felt sure that there must be more possibilities in the immediate neighbourhood, and I decided to do some exploring on foot (following narrow paths on a bike can be awkward if you come to a dead end, especially when the only way to turn around is to tip the bike up on its back wheel and pirouette through 180 degrees). This exploration has resulted in the compilation of a short tour of my immediate neighbourhood that nevertheless features some extremely technical moves and a vicious hill.

The area between the Ng Tung River and Ma Sik Road has no roads, despite the map showing otherwise, but it is criss-crossed by several paths, including ones between the two footbridges across the river and Ma Sik Road, and a third crossing these two at right angles. I already knew about these paths, but the challenge was to combine them in such a way that no path is traversed twice. This problem is similar to a famous puzzle from the eighteenth century, and I resolved it in a similar manner.

Apparently, the citizens of Königsberg, in East Prussia, wanted to know whether it was possible to cross the seven bridges over the River Pregel once and only once and return to the starting position. The following diagram illustrates the problem.

The problem was eventually solved by famous mathematician Leonhard Euler in 1735, although ‘solved’ could be considered a misleading description. Euler proved that such a traverse is impossible. Note that both islands, A and D, and both banks, B and C, can be reached by an odd number of bridges, and the proposed traverse would be possible only if each was reached by an even number of bridges, although it would be possible to traverse all seven bridges but end up in a different location if no more than two of the locations A–D had an odd number of connections. The best route I could devise would necessarily have no more than two intersections from which an odd number of paths radiated.

However, my route starts by crossing the river to the north and follows a narrow road to a firing range that was originally set up by the British Army but is now operated by the PLA. It is from here that the short but savage hill starts that I alluded to earlier:

Once I reach the top of the hill, it is downhill all the way on the other side, but this is a very rough dirt path, and a mountain bike and total concentration are both essential:

It is impossible to describe in any kind of meaningful way the remainder of the route, so here are a few photos, in sequence, to give a flavour of what is involved. The concrete bridge in the first photo is alarmingly thin, and I do wonder how much rebar it contains.

The next two photos show a desperately awkward left turn followed a few metres further on by an only marginally easier right turn. The problem in each case is the drop off the outside of the corner if you fail to make the turn.

I often wonder, when I see a path that meanders like the one in the following photo, whether it was established originally by grazing goats, which can still be seen in the area from time to time. This section is easy despite the big drop off the left-hand side (the fence on the left marks part of the exclusion zone set up by the henchmen of Uncle Four).

The next photo looks back along the line of the route, which runs alongside the storm drain before crossing it via the makeshift ‘bridge’, which is merely a piece of wood that I scavenged from a recently demolished dwelling on the other side of the river. This leads to a tricky section through the trees and a couple of dirt ramps, the first up and reasonably easy, the second down and quite scary, because there is an abrupt turn at the bottom, and braking too hard on this crumbly surface could be painful.

Incidentally, I’ve made three attempts so far to ascend the second ramp, all of which have ended in failure because it is far too easy to lose traction completely.

I’ve devised a similar route on the south side of Sha Tau Kok Road, which ends with the eastern descent. This will be the subject of my next post.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

a blot on the landscape

When we moved to the eastern outskirts of Fanling in 2008, the first thing we did was to find out how to cross the open area between the Ng Tung River (‘River Indus’) and Ma Sik Road, an area that I used to describe as ‘fields’. However, our first attempt ended in failure when we missed a left turn off the path we were following, and we ended up at an estate of low-rise residential blocks surrounded by security fences and protected by CCTV cameras.

The following photograph, which was taken from Ma Sik Road looking towards 1 on the map, shows part of this complex. Every block is empty and has been since we moved here. I don’t know when this ‘estate’ was built, but it must be reasonable to assume that it has never been occupied, which begs an obvious question: why was it built in the first place?

It turns out that the land is owned by leading property developer Henderson Land, and that it was required to ‘develop’ the land by the Hong Kong government to avoid being compelled to return it to that same government, which had sold the land to the developer in the first place. It would seem that the government is now satisfied with the situation, because nothing has happened here in the last seven years to hurry along the site’s development. Given all that I hear about the shortage of housing in Hong Kong, this arrangement is nothing short of iniquitous.

Meanwhile, further east, the impact of Henderson Land on the area has not been pretty. In Turf Wars, I documented how opportunist farmers were being driven off its land by this company, which seems reasonable until you see the results. Compare the following photograph, taken in 2008/09 from 2 on the map, with the second photo, which was taken just a few days ago but which reflects the situation that has existed here for the past three years.

A lot of the area in question is heavily overgrown, but the first photo shows what hard work and diligence can achieve in such conditions. However, not content with merely planting a few ‘keep off’ notices, the henchmen of the notorious Uncle Four were clearly instructed to erect wire-mesh fences around all such cultivated areas and to demolish any structure that could conceivably be made habitable.

At the time, I noted that gates were provided in these fences wherever cultivation was taking place, which seemed like a reasonable idea until I realized that within a very short time of enclosure, the cultivated land within had been abandoned. In retrospect, it would seem that the farmers were being allowed access only until their current crops had been harvested, and the land has now been overtaken by weeds, as shown in the next photo, which was taken at 3 on the map. The literal translation of the sign behind the fence is as follows:
private home important land, ordinary person no entrance

I have no doubt that the land between Ma Sik Road and the river will eventually be filled by high-rise blocks, and the land has little amenity value for the general public, so there will not be an outcry over the way this situation is being managed, but if my assumption that the land is merely being held as part of a portfolio, to be developed only when it is economically advantageous to do so, then I believe that it is morally and ethically wrong to allow the land to degenerate into a wilderness of weeds when it could be producing food until it is required for development.